Just about a month from now marks the 40th anniversary of the start of one of the more galvanizing periods in modern U.S. history.
It was on Nov. 4, 1979, that a group of Iranian students overran and seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran.
Among the 52 hostages held during the 444-day siege, 20-year-old Marine Sgt. Kevin Hermening was the youngest.
His mother, Barbara Timm, from Oak Creek, Wisconsin, refused to accept the situation, defying President Carter’s travel ban and flying to Tehran, facing the hostage takers and demanding to see her son. Surprisingly, this suburban housewife from middle America made good on her mission, getting the chance to visit her son, albeit for less than an hour.
The story so intrigued Los Angeles-based playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks that she turned it into a play, “Hostage,” which will be performed Thursday through Oct. 27 at the Swan Theatre as the first Adobe Rose Productions since the Adobe Rose Theatre was donated to the International Shakespeare Center.
The germ of the idea hit Kholos Brooks when hearing a National Public Radio interview with Hermening, in which his mom’s visit was discussed.
“Mothers don’t get to visit hostages,” Kholos Brooks said. “That seemed extraordinary to me.”
That began a whirlwind of research as she called upon her background as a former journalist to begin to work the event back into a play.
“It really combines the skills I had honed as journalist,” she said. “I became very interested in writing plays about how ordinary people reacted when they are thrown into global events and how they manage to fight their way out of it or adapt. This kind of hit all of those buttons now. … ”
And while, on the surface, this is a story about a mother’s love for her son overcoming all odds, an added element to the story unfolded as an ill-fated U.S. attempt to free the hostages crashed and burned while Timm was in Iran, thrusting her even further into the global spotlight. It glowed even brighter as, on returning home, she was labeled a traitor and potential spy.
It’s certainly a tale worthy of being told, even these many years later, said director Jessica Hanna.
“The actual stuff is there, and the story of this family and this mother is the connective tissue on this particular take,” she said. “It’s a mother’s love for her child. This woman stepped way out of her comfort zone and suffered the consequences for it. The mob mentality circled around her afterwards.”
In many ways, the play is quite relevant to world events that are currently ebbing and flowing, Hanna said.
“These are the events of what was happening in the culture at that time and you could make the argument that CNN grew out of this event,” she said. “In terms of what the American people were given from the media and culture, and being a part of everyone’s awareness, it was a turning point in terms of our culture and how we pay attention to ourselves in the world.”
Bringing all this to the stage may have seemed unwieldy, but Hanna said it helped that since she is also based in Los Angeles, she was able to meet with Kholos Brooks beforehand.
“Michelle was a big part of that, to understand where she was coming from and what she was thinking about when she was writing it,” Hanna said. “It happens in two different times and places at the same time. It’s been a really nice collaborative process in terms of how the story is told design and concept wise.”
While Kholos Brooks said she didn’t really set out with any specific agenda in bringing the events to the stage, she said it is a good time to peer back through the lens of time to the one of country’s first major clashes in the Islamic world and how it has played out of over the years.
“I can’t tell you I had a conscious goal at the time,” she said. “I really wanted to open up a conversation about these events. I like to turn the prism around and look at the other side of it. I wanted to understand the point of view of the hostage takers, as well. Not to defend it, but to understand it. Whenever we have the opportunity to humanize the other side, it benefits us all. I feel like that’s a little bit of my agenda all the time. I don’t think I’m a playwright who teaches people lessons, but I don’t believe evil exists in a vacuum. And I’m interested in investigating those reasons.”